A Brief History of DeviantArt: a Case Study in Evolving Participatory Culture

by Matthew Amyx

“Blue Rainy Day” by Filipe Dilly (username: Filsd, website: dilly.carbonmade.com) Made available to all users through Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.

DeviantArt is a social media platform where artists can share, create, and collaborate in an increasing number of artistic mediums, including painting, poetry, photography, and film. According to their About page, DeviantArt boasts 36 million registered users (known as deviants) and averages 160,000 art uploads daily. The history of DeviantArt exemplifies an expanding and adapting affinity space offering avenues for artists to collaborate and legally appropriate, realizing practically many of the goals outlined in the MacArthur Foundation’s paper “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century”. Public historians could use DeviantArt as an example of creating participatory culture in the discipline.

“Painting with Light” by Nick Nardiello (username: nardsketch), Made available to all users through Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

DeviantArt was founded in 2000 and incorporated in 2001 by Scott Jarkoff, Matt Stephens, and current CEO Angelo Sotira (who gives a more detailed, complicated history of the company here). Initially, DeviantArt was a part of the Dmusic Network Sites, and facilitating adding custom ‘skins’ – appearances and themes – to computer media playback interfaces. Soon, however, the company broke off to do its own thing, creating a space where artists could upload images. DeviantArt gradually added features to facilitate expression, circulation, and collaboration. In 2004, a chat client opened. By August 2006, users could sell their work on commission through the website, and that November a Creative Commons option was made available, encouraging artists to allow their copyrighted work to be shared and creatively appropriated (which is why I can upload the pictures and photos in this blog entry).

“Misty Morning”, a photo manipulation collaboration between Ashley Hess (username: ScatteredAshe) and Nikki  (username: nikkidoodlesx3). Made available to all users through Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

According to the Executive Summary of the MacArthur Foundation’s paper, participatory culture is “a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations,and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices” (3). Not only does DeviantArt facilitate informal mentorship through collaboration and chat features, but in 2010 they launched DeviantArt Muro, an online easel program, providing tools to close the participation gap for those who may not be able to afford expensive boxed art software. Expert users regularly upload tutorials as well, so the DeviantArt community draws on collective intelligence and distributed cognition, further promoting and improving the participatory culture.

The MacArthur Foundation paper defines 21st-century literacy as “the set of abilities and skills where aural, visual,and digital literacy overlap.These include the ability to understand the power of images and sounds, to recognize and use that power, to manipulate and transform digital media, to distribute them pervasively,and to easily adapt them to new forms” (19).  By this definition, DeviantArt has increased 21st-century literacy over its career. In 2007, it added a film category that includes live action, a variety of animation genres, and mash-ups of all the above. In 2010, DeviantArt allowed for comments to be made in pictures rather than just words, breaking constructive feedback out of linear, text-bound confines.

Public historians should take advantage of the image, film, and language art offerings in DeviantArt, but they can also learn from its example. Digital archives and online exhibits can contain comment features allowing for multiple forms of feedback, including art. Museum social media accounts should collaborate with those of other institutions using digitized heritage resources in multi-disciplinary ways. Library websites can provide engaging, interactive history research tutorials to close the history class participation gap. Internet-based historical societies can provide venues for story-tellers and academians alike to circulate and express their research. In these ways, informal education institutions can create a participatory culture among professional and lay historians in much the same way DeviantArt has for painters, poets, and filmmakers.



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